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‘Top Chef’ in Yucatán, with a very Mayan challenge

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“Top Chef” judges, from left, Jeremiah Tower, Padma Lakshmi, Tom Colicchio and Graham Elliot, in Valladolid, Yucatán. Photo: Paul Cheney/Bravo

One of Yucatán’s most famous expats, Jeremiah Tower, was a surprise guest judge this week on “Top Chef.”

Tower, one of the founders of California cuisine, didn’t have to travel to the U.S. to take part in the show. The show came to him. 

The long-running competition show’s penultimate episode of the season had already shot an episode in Guadalajara. The cast and crew then headed to the Yucatán Peninsula for a stay at Secrets Akumal Riviera Maya.

“We have arrived in paradise!” marveled one of the contestants. “Are we in a Jay Z video right now? Let me get my mink coat on and pop some bottles, because this place is on another level.”

But they didn’t stay long. The next day, they went inland to colonial Valladolid, where host Padma Lakshmi promised it would get hot. Did she mean the weather? Not necessarily.

Top Chef Yucatán
Jeremiah Tower joins “Top Chef” toward the end of its current season. Photo: Bravo

“The ingredient you’re going to be working with is going to make you sweat,” she said, introducing the “habanero challenge.”

The finalists got an hour to gather ingredients at the local market, which was not exactly the Whole Foods. The ones who knew any Spanish had a big advantage. 

“Queso fresco?” the one male contestant was seen calling out to no avail.  “Queso fresco?” He ended up with tamal, thinking it was fresh cheese.

Tower, who was there to help educate the challengers in the way of Mayan cooking, left one contestant “a little starstruck.”

After Tower’s quick lecture on Mayan history and its influence on today’s Mexican cooking, the Elimination Challenge is announced: Create a dish like the Maya used to do it, using only traditional Maya ingredients and tools.

It dawns on one of the contestants that blenders are not consistent with ancient pre-Colombian techniques.

Distinguished Mexican chef and culinary anthropologist Ricardo Muñoz Zurita joined Tower in helping the chefs get oriented. 

In the end Tower got to announce the winner. For a play by play, food blog Eater has details

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